It’s a Wrap

It’s hot. It’s new. It’s an upscale twist on the lowly burrito …

October 1997By Comments

HAVE YOU EVER WANTED TO CHANGE THE COURSE OF HISTORY? You can do it, for five bucks, right this minute. How? Get in your car and drive to one of the nine Texas-grown eateries that are serving the cheeky modern burritos known as wraps. Buy one, peel off the foil, eat it. If you love the idea of ancho-cinnamon grilled snapper with jasmine rice on a spinach tortilla and vow that you’ll be back for more, you will be spurring the success of America’s hottest food craze. If you hate the notion of teriyaki chicken with grilled vegetables and sprouts on a whole-wheat tortilla and declare that you’d sooner eat a sautéed salamander than another wrap, you’ll help guarantee the failure of America’s most overhyped food fad. In either case, you’ll make history.

From the day they gained popularity in California two and a half years ago and began their inexorable march across the country, wraps have seduced—some say snookered—the media and the public. Independent wrap restaurants like World Wrapps, High Tech Burrito, and Rocket Wraps have been growing faster than you can say “mango salsa,” primarily on the Pacific Coast. (One, an Arizona-based operation called New York Burritos, has already infiltrated Texas with a Dallas-area store.) The fast-food chains (Taco Bell, KFC, Long John Silver’s, and many more) have begun rolling out their own wraps nationwide. And here in the Lone Star State, an indigenous wrap revolution is gathering momentum. Less than a year ago, Texas had four of its own wrap joints; today that number has more than doubled, and the majority of the ventures intend to expand. One, Wraps International Gourmet Burritos in Houston, is talking twenty to forty outlets in three years. This could be the start of something big.

To understand why a goodly portion of the population is lining up for wraps, with some addicts getting a fix three and four times a week, you need a wrap rundown. (If you’re no longer a wrap virgin, skip this paragraph and the next.) Reduced to their basics, wraps are burritos. Indeed, the Internet is home to several Web sites that rail against calling a burrito by any other name (see “Wrap.com,” page 166). But the concept has evolved far beyond the time-honored foodstuff consisting of a large flour tortilla filled with refried pinto beans, cheese, Spanish rice, beef, and other border chow.

First, there’s the wrapper, or wrap, a thin tortilla ten to fourteen inches in diameter flavored with everything from spinach to tomato, cheese, basil, cayenne, or jalapeño. Then there’s the filling, usually a pound or more chosen from a global smorgasbord including jerk- spiced pork, glazed salmon, baby spinach, tomato saffron sauce, black beans, Japanese eggplant, red pepper—corn salsa, and grilled sweet potatoes, as well as the usual burrito fixings. And finally there’s the presentation, a tidy outer casing of foil (or occasionally paper). This finishing touch is crucial because it turns the wrap into a portable silver torpedo that can be easily consumed in the car or at the desk.

All of which raises the question, Does America really need another fast food? The answer: Yes, desperately. With a few exceptions, this country’s fast food is so bad for you that everyone who buys a pizza or a burger should get a coupon for a free angioplasty. And the rap on wraps is that they’re healthful, which helps explain why they’re going strong. They have vegetables, they have assorted starches and complex carbohydrates, and they have protein (but not too much). Of course, if you choose one with sour cream and cheese, you might as well have had a slice of pepperoni pizza.

But there’s more to the wrap craze than the fact that they can be good for you: Wraps are creating a buzz right now because the ones at the cutting edge have class—they’re bringing upscale, fusion cuisine to a midscale audience. (Indeed, a handful of white-tablecloth restaurants like Jay’s Mesteña in San Antonio and benjy’s in Houston are glamorizing wraps with chic ingredients such as pan-seared salmon, portobello mushrooms, and watercress.) Five or so years ago designer pizzas, with their fresh spinach, tofu, and sun-dried tomatoes, were among the first quick foods to mix ethnic culinary traditions. But wraps have gone a step further. Their menus are international with a vengeance (anyone for Spanish rice, Japanese eggplant, and barbecue sauce in a single wrap?), and their lovingly detailed descriptions suggest a gourmet inclination. Traditional Tex-Mex burrito-style wraps have a good market share, but tony pan-global wraps are the ones getting all the press.

Food aside, wrap restaurants are catching on with the public for another reason: They’re cute. At many, the colors are jazzy, the lines have a nineties retro look, with sharp angles and undulating curves, and the decor is free-form and whimsical: Customers at Freebirds in College Station create aluminum-foil figurines and add them to a special display shelf; at Habanero’s Grill in San Antonio, a cartoon cow sails over the moon in a floor-to-ceiling mural. Beyond setting a chipper mood, these decorative touches elevate the stereotypical fast-food environment to what the restaurant industry calls “fast casual,” a setting where people will pay $4.50 to $6 for a wrap and another $2.50 for a smoothie and walk out happy.

The funny thing about wraps is that while they’re new, in fact they’re eons old. The basic idea—a flexible flat bread with some kind of delicious filling—exists the world over in the form of spring rolls, egg rolls, Chinese pancakes filled with mu-shu pork, lamb-stuffed pita bread, chicken crêpes, and cheese blintzes. The immediate antecedents of the current wrap craze come from the wheat-growing region of Sonora, in northern Mexico, where workingmen would wrap meat and beans in huge, paper-thin flour tortillas to make easy-to-carry lunches. But it wasn’t until 1995, when a group of California boomers at San Francisco’s World Wrapps took burritos and gave them their present spin, that wraps caught on big time.

All of which brings us to the final question: Will wraps last? Looks like it to me. Unlike inane fads such as cigars and martinis, wraps satisfy a need. They make a tasty, affordable, potentially nutritious meal that’s geared to the demands of a society on perpetual fast-forward. Depend on it: A spinach tortilla with Thai chicken, caramelized onions, cucumber, and spicy peanut sauce is in your future.

Wrap Sheet

Where to eat them in Texas.

I CAN’T BELIEVE I’M SAYING THIS, but after having sampled forty wraps in three weeks, I still like them. The majority were tasty; three or four were excellent; only a small minority were duds. That said, I have a couple of gripes. First, most wraps are too starchy. So what if complex carbs are good for you (and cheap for the wrapmaker)? A flour tortilla and rice or beans (sometimes all three) is overkill. Second gripe: The flavors all run together. To succeed, the ingredients of a wrap must be compartmentalized. When they are just tossed on, the different textures, flavors, and temperatures intermingle, and after the third bite, you’re bored. My suggestion: Hope the person behind the counter is a skilled wrap artiste, and tell him or her to go easy on the starch.

Here’s a roundup of Texas wrappers.

AUSTIN

Bohemian Wrapcity
Office workers and bar hoppers can now get quick sustenance at this skinny, sunshine-yellow brick building—a modest space equipped with a counter, a grill, and a few bar tables. The establishment is only four months old and business is spotty (one hundred customers on weekdays, three hundred on Fridays and Saturdays), so co-owners and co-managers Daniél Alcalá, 36, Leosha Kriventsov, 30, and Eric Reingatch, 30, may well fix your wrap themselves. From the global menu, the Thai Me Down Wrap comes loaded with basmati rice (begging for salt when I visited), and a flavorful mélange of cabbage, carrots, sprouts, pico de gallo, and a custom-made peanut sauce on your choice of tortilla—I went with tomato chipotle. I protein-ized mine with chicken (beef and tofu were alternatives). For some reason, mashed potato wraps are usually ho-hum, and Bohemian’s Middle Peace (with my choice of grilled tofu plus hummus, tomato salsa, and eggplant spread) was no exception.
511 E. Sixth, 512457-9727.

Fruitstand Smoothies and Wraps
This airy blue-and-white downtown smoothie bar was just snoozing along until 39-year-old owner Brenda Reveles added wraps to the menu about a year ago; then business woke up and began averaging 150 to 200 customers a day. No wonder: These wraps are as sophisticated as those costing nearly twice as much at upscale restaurants, and the ingredients are carefully arranged to maximize flavor contrasts. Take, for instance, the balsamic-vinaigrette-marinated-grilled-chicken wrap, a real treat with red bell peppers, green onions, zucchini, and white rice in a tomato-basil tortilla. It’s sliced diagonally to show off its eye-popping colors; the tastes pop too. Other personal favorites: the feta-strewn Mediterranean and the smoked salmon with a fabulously tart lime-horseradish sauce.
416 Congress Avenue, 512-322-9778.

Wrapido
Is the roar of a blender like a balm to your ears? Is blaring rock music more soothing to you than a lullaby? Then you’ll never want to leave this bright, hopping student joint just north of the UT campus. Since it opened in December, three hundred to four hundred customers a day have passed through 32-year-old Daryl Kunik’s place to sink their teeth into the likes of the rotund Thai chicken wrap. The grilled chicken is hot (it was also burned when I tried it); the cucumber, purple and green cabbage, and carrots are cold; and the spicy peanut sauce gives a nifty slow burn. By contrast, the too-sweet barbecued-steak wrap, laden (and leaden) with garlic mashed potatoes, needs a conceptual overhaul.
3023 Guadalupe, 512-476-9727.

COLLEGE STATION

Freebirds World Burrito
If you don’t fancy the replica of Captain America’s famous Harley from Easy Rider crashing through the “Berlin Wall” at the campus location of Freebirds, drive across town. There you can dine under the gaze of the Statue of Liberty with a burrito in her hand. The oldest, biggest, and most whimsical wrap outfit in Texas began seven years ago as a branch of Freebirds in Santa Barbara, California, but the two local operations are now Texas-owned. Today the proprietor, 35-year-old native Californian Pierre Dubé, serves more than 1,500 customers a day at his two locations. The burritos are fresh and savory (I saw an actual bay leaf floating in the pot of black beans), but the choices are limited. There are four flavors of tortillas but only two meats (steak and chicken) and two fillers (rice and various beans). What helps is a multitude of homemade salsas and garnishes, such as pico de gallo and freshly pickled jalapeños.
319 University Drive, 409-846-9298, and 2050 Texas Avenue, 409-695-0151.

DALLAS

Eureka!
Who would have guessed that yup-oidal North Dallas would be ahead of the curve on any trend? Fortysomething owner Joanne Levy’s gourmet-to-go deli and restaurant anticipated the wrap craze from the day it opened four years ago. Today it goes its own way, serving chilled “wrappers” made with lavosh, the Middle Eastern flat bread that is usually served toasted but here is soft. I took a counter seat in the stark white space trimmed with interior purple awnings to try three versions. The peppered turkey wrapper had accents of herbed ricotta, an irresistible ginger pear chutney (not nearly enough), and real leaf lettuce. Folks, this is my kind of wrap: strongly flavored, crisp, and not swamped with starch. The Southwestern grilled chicken came through with black-bean spread (again, skimpy), roasted red peppers, and a sprinkle of low-fat mozzarella. As for the “veggie” taco wrapper, it could have been livelier and definitely needed more chipotle spread. But you can’t fault the nutritional stats on any of these, with 350 to 533 calories and a piddling three to eight grams of fat each.
4011 Villanova, southeast corner of Northwest Highway and Preston Road, 214369-7767.

FORT WORTH

Gourmet Burrito
This lilliputian spot has been hot to promote wraps in the prairieland between Dallas and Fort Worth since it opened in December 1995. Most of the five hundred customers a day at 32-year-old Ann Hale’s place order their burritos to go; a few perch at the counter in the simple red-and-black storefront in a shopping center south of DFW Airport. The wraps here are mostly Tex-Mex, with daily whims like a Philly-cheese-steak burrito. Two of the three offerings I tried seemed a lot like a No. 2 dinner rolled into a flour tortilla. In the chicken-bacon club, for instance, the chicken was overpowered by the Spanish rice, black beans or excellent pintos, tomato, green sauce, and bacon. The liberally salsa-ed vegetarian tasted similar, with the additions of grilled onion and red bell pepper. Best of the lot was the chicken Caesar, a crisp rolled-up salad (even if it did, quite improperly, have tomatoes in it).
14200 Trinity, at Texas Highway 360, technically in Fort Worth but closer to Arlington and Irving, 817-545-6900.

HOUSTON

Mission Burritos
Wendy Jones never dreamed she’d be in the burrito biz (“I thought they were yucky”), but a wrap-crazed friend and future investor who’d spent time in California was so insistent that Jones finally tried one and thought, “Wow, wait a minute. This might be neat to do.” Nine months after opening, five hundred to six hundred customers a day come for the 32-year-old owner’s excellent rolls, and she is already enlarging her breezily informal place with the oak-shaded deck out front. Most visitors don’t bother to dress up (well, maybe a change of gardening togs or fresh green spray on the hair). They stroll through supervising Tex-Mex orders like the great Muy Awesome Chicken (charcoal-grilled chicken with avocado, roasted-tomato salsa, the usual rice and beans, and a cilantro-onion mix on a plain flour tortilla). Equally fine: the QueMas Salad burrito, a special, with greens, roasted corn, cheeses, jícama, and a choice of dressings including blue cheese vinaigrette.
2245 W. Alabama, 713-529-0535.

Wraps International Gourmet Burritos
“Strong. Our sales have been strong since we opened five months ago”: That’s all close-mouthed co-owner Mark Rice will say about his numbers, but when the noontime line is out the door, you figure the 32-year-old lawyer and accountant is not fibbing—just paranoid about the competition. Wraps is probably the most California-esque wrap place in Texas and definitely one of the most polished. It has a chef (Javier Mondragon), a decorator (Kirksey and Partners, of La Griglia and Grotto fame), and plans to waltz across Texas. If you spend a little time in this jazzy space, with its royal blue and buttercup-yellow walls and angular, Memphis-like detailing, you’ll believe it could happen. To my taste, the ancho snapper (garlicky marinated fish, coconut-tinged jasmine rice, ginger cabbage slaw, guacamole, and a slam-dunk ancho-cinnamon sauce) shows Wraps at its best. The top-selling chicken pesto can grow monotonous about halfway through, but the spicy-sweet Thai chicken on a spinach tortilla gets a thumbs-up.
Meyerland Plaza shopping center, on Beechnut just west of Loop 610, 281-681-1100.

SAN ANTONIO

Habanero’s Grill
At this northside joint, you can lounge on the deck and have a ’rita with your ’rito. You can also observe your white or whole-wheat tortilla being freshly pressed as you walk down the serving line—an experience as strangely engrossing as watching your car go through the car wash. Partners Steve Kraft, 36, and John Kindred, 28, have a lot of good ideas going at their nine-month-old enterprise, starting with a bouncy, multi-wall mural that features a cowboy lassoing the Tower of the Americas with a one-eyed rattlesnake. More than 250 customers a day show up to customize their own burritos from an impressive five meats (including carne guisada) and accompaniments. My chicken Fajita-rito with sautéed red peppers and rice was most agreeable, especially slathered with roasted-tomato sauce from the salsa bar. But my favorite was the vegetarian Pepper-rito, with grilled poblanos, chunky potatoes, and more. Tip: Get the onions grilled in Cholula sauce on everything.
West Avenue at Embassy Oak, 210499-0099.

WRAP.COM

Burritos in cyberspace.

THREATENED BY THE INSIDIOUS advance of wraps, lovers of traditional burritos have mounted a counterattack on the World Wide Web. Browse here for burrito essays, poems, fan pages, humor, and general ranting. Trying to find a serious Web page on burritos is a little like trying to find a serious one on Twinkies or Spam—next to impossible.

Burrito.com
Definitely the funniest of the bunch. (Gold star awarded for the dancing burrito graphics.) “Rito,” your tour guide, leads you through cooking tips, nutritional information, and a hilarious “slide show” photo history of the burrito. For the real fun, though, check out the burrito poetry contest—you could win a month’s supply of the tubular treats. (burrito.com is no longer a valid web address)

Burrito Page
These folks have assembled “Landmark Texts of Burritology” from burrito literature new and old (can you say “John Steinbeck”?). Some of the sections are useful only if you live in California, like the “’Rito Rap” history of that state, but the site has plenty of other links and games. “Burrito-Analysis” lets you pick your favorite toppings and then defines your personality based on what you choose. (www.infobahn.com/pages/rito.html)

Anti-Wrap Page
A philosophical controversy wages here over the inherent superiority and primacy of burritos over wraps. Brought to you by the Burrito Page, Anti-Wrap vows to boycott the Johnny-come-latelies. Its slogan: “No patronage until you start calling them ‘Burritos’!” (www.infobahn.com/pages/anti-wrap.html) World’s Largest Burrito Catch this one on an empty stomach. Jeff Luszcz’s homepage gives 26 pictures of the making and consumption of what he claims was the world’s largest burrito. (www.luszcz.com/burrito.html)

The First Innocent Inanimate Object: The Burrito
Is it performance art? Who knows? But if you’ve ever wondered what a Taco Bell bean burrito would look like if you shot it with a hollow-point bullet (and recorded the devastation in slow motion), this page is for you. (www.5sigma.com/joseph/inan/burrito.html is no longer a valid web address). KATY VINE

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